Pig heart transplant took place at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore in January. Photo: University of Maryland Medical School

Fifty-seven-year-old David Bennett Sr., who suffered a severe heart disease while living in Maryland, has become subject to groundbreaking medical history. In Jan. 2022 at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Mr. Bennett’s failing heart was replaced with that of a genetically altered pig. According to The New York Times, this pig heart was provided by Revivicor, a regenerative medicine company based in Blacksburg, Va. According to Stanford University, the failure in these procedures lies within immediate rejection. Humans have “natural antibodies” that circulate blood and combat these foreign organs. A system of proteins in the body called “complement” is also activated when pig organs are transplanted into primates, leading to severe systematic toxicity. Seeing this, the provided pig carried 10 genetic modifications, including four inactivated genes. This gene removal prevented hyper-fast rejection and continued growth of the pig heart following the implantation. Six human genes were inserted into the genome of the donor pig, designed to make the pig’s organs more tolerable to the human immune system. 

Because Mr. Bennett’s heart condition was so severe, he was ineligible for a human heart transplant. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had granted emergency authorization of the transplant on “compassionate use” grounds seven days prior to Mr. Bennett’s surgery. “It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” said Mr. Bennett one day before the transplant. This yearning to live pioneered a medical discovery in which for the first six weeks, the human body showed zero signs of rejection, an important milestone for any transplant patient. Mr. Bennett was well enough to watch the 2022 Super Bowl on Feb. 13, surrounded by his family in the hospital. 

However, on Mar. 8, two months after the procedure, Mr. Bennett passed away. While doctors did not reveal the exact cause of death, the surgeon performing the transplant, Dr. Bartley Griffith, said, “Mr. Bennett became known by millions of people around the world for his courage and steadfast will to live.” Ultimately a failed experiment, this procedure transformed the future of using nonhuman tissues or organs to replace failing human organs, known as xenotransplantation. Being the first human to survive two months with said heart transplant, Mr. Bennett has provided scientists with the necessary information to continue developing the xenotransplantation field at a faster pace. As stated in The Guardian, the demand for another source of organs has immensely increased, as seen through the 41,000 transplants performed in the US last year, 3,800 of them being heart transplants.

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